These days, like many of us, I find myself wondering two things over and over: when will we emerge from the half-life of this pandemic? And what will it take to not only “build back better” as the current administration promises, but to truly build a multiracial, polylingual, multicultural, antiracist democracy? I don’t know the answer to either question. I suspect we will only see signs here and there, that there cannot be a definitive answer. People have likened our contending with contagion to a war, but there will be no treaty signed, no sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square, no parades. Likewise I can’t think there will be a day when we sit back with satisfaction and say that real respect, comity, and fellowship have been achieved. I would distrust any such declaration.
I seem to be one of those people who live continually, often uncomfortably, in a state of doubt. I know how mercurial both language and memory are: both, out of words, can make things that never existed. And I know how inflected by desire, circumstance, fatigue are my own perceptions, not to mention my projections onto people and the attendant misguided attributions of their motives. Certainty is most certainly an error.
When I encounter someone who is powerfully certain of their opinion, I react either in confusion, or by feeling weak and wishy-washy — what’s wrong with me? On the other hand, if they are holding fast to some certifiably retrograde notion, if they are some kind of flat-earther, or someone who refuses to wear a Covid-shielding mask, then I dismiss them along with their stupidity. In both cases I withdraw: in the first case because I feel intimidated by a certainty I’m hardly ever able to feel, and in the second because there’s no point in arguing. “There’s no fixing stupid,” as the saying goes.
But that’s irl, as we say online — in real life. In my other life, as a writer, I more often respond to others’ certainty by plunging headlong into my own confusion, pen in hand, in order to examine, weigh, interpret, and try to come to terms with my own bewilderment. And as an editor I look for those essays that take up this challenge, that enter into a dialogue with their subject, that question assumptions, refuse neat closures, search not for a pat answer but for a more comprehensive, open minded, and open hearted way to understand the inquiry driving the essay.
As Charter Weeks says in his illuminating photo-essay “Trains”: “… this trip meets our criteria because we have no idea what to expect” — a statement that might pertain equally to our editorial stance, the state of the world post Covid, or the essays collected here. May they bewilder you as they have, beautifully, bewildered me.